A step into the past…

As morbid as it sounds, ancient cities destroyed by an unknown force fascinate me. So does the architecture of South Indian temples, although I’m no expert on architecture or temples (or anything for that matter). But when I chanced upon the last remaining edifice of an erstwhile capital of the Cholas which was destroyed by an unknown natural calamity, the history buff, architectural junkie and self-proclaimed natural-light photography expert in me exploded into a crescendo of curiosity. Thus began my six-month long pestering and nagging for someone to take me to Gangaikondacholapuram (the linguistic expert in me wakes up suddenly to provide the following explanation for the unpronounceable name. Gangai: River Ganga, konda: having; cholapuram: land of the Cholas.) However, Wikipedia systematically demolished my budding linguistic skills, stating that, the name means “The Land of Cholas who conquered the Ganges” (an unsubtle nod to the Chola Kings’ defeat of rulers in Northern India). My amateur assumption was the name meant “The Land of Cholas where Ganga flows” (considering my far-fetched idea that the Anaivettu [Anai: dam; vettu: breaking/cutting] canal flows nearby, and could be presumed to be the Ganga of the South). This is a common misconception (in my defence), since konda in Tamil could mean “have” as well as “conquer”.

Brief History
Kings of the Chola dynasty ruled large swathes of Southern India and Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) from the ancient times until the medieval ages. The Chola kings were connoisseurs of art, music, dance, architecture, literature and anything and everything in fine arts under the sun (which explains why they were proclaimed to be descendants of the Sun god). They also maintained good diplomatic equations with China (our present-day diplomats could learn a thing or two from them), Cambodia (then known as Kampuchea) and many other royal kingdoms. The greatest of the Chola rulers was King Rajaraja Chola, and the dynasty reached the crux of its fame and prosperity under his rule; Other well-known kings of the Chola dynasty were King Rajendra Chola (his successor) and King Kulathonga Chola.

The Capital
King Rajendra Chola built Gangaikondacholapuram to commemorate his victory against the rulers of Northern kingdoms. According to excavations and inscriptions, and from the literature, Gangaikondacholapuram was built to replace Thanjavur as the capital of the Chola dynasty, and as part of his efforts, the King proceeded to build a replica of the world-famous Brihadeeshwara temple (dedicated to Lord Shiva) in Thanjavur at his new capital. The exact resemblance of the two temples has to be seen to be believed, the architectural style, the height of the temple (as far as the untrained eye can see), the huge nandi (ceremonial bull, Lord Shiva’s preferred means of transport) and the surrounding structures are all almost identical to the Brihadeeshwara temple. Unfortunately, a natural calamity struck and the whole city was demolished, and with the fall of the Cholas and subsequent rise of Pallava dynasty (who shifted their capital all the way to Mamallapuram, near Chennai), the temple is the only structure to represent the ruins of a long-forgotten city.

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The entrance to the Shiva temple

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The huge Nandi facing the sanctum sanctorum of the temple

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A lone bull looking despondently at the grass around him

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The main temple (it was under renovation by Archaeological Society of India during the time of our visit)

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This temple is an exact replica of the world-famous Brihadeeshwara temple at Thanjavur

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An assortment of the remains of statues destroyed by natural forces.

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A window carved from stone: Example of the skilled craftsmanship of Chola sculptors

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Lord Shiva and Parvathi confer the ceremonial crown on King Rajendra Chola, the founder of Gangaikondacholapuram.

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Statue of a lion, a recurring motif in the Chola architecture.

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Remains of a resting place inside the temple, most probably used for community gathering. The two-tier stone structure is particularly impressive, considering the fact that it has withstood the ravages of time.

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A stone sculpture of a simham (lion). It was probably, similar to the Nandi, sculpted out of a single stone. There is a passageway that runs below the sculpture!

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Nandi: Messenger to God. The Hindus have a tradition of whispering their wishes in the ears of the Nandi, hoping the bull would communicate their desires and wishes to Lord Shiva. In this case, there is a smaller Nandi just in front, serving the purpose

Historical facts:
The temple is around 900 years old.
The English destroyed the huge outer wall surrounding the temple, using the stones to construct the Lower Anaicut dam across the Kolladam river

How to reach: Gangaikondacholapuram is about 7 km away from Jayamkondan, and is situated 110 km from Tanjore and 165 km from Trichy. The inhabitants of villages dotting the route are the friendliest blokes I have met, and served as the unofficial GPS, GSS, and road quality advisors, all rolled into one. Feel free to stop and ask for directions (like we did).
Essentials: Lots of water, good-quality camera, socks (in case you are a late riser and land in the place smack in mid-afternoon), Anne Leibovitzic attitude, interest in history.
Worth it? YES!

Photographs courtesy: Yours truly (Nokia Lumia 610, 5 mp)
Snippets of history courtesy: Wikipedia and my overactive imagination.
Thanks and a shout out to: My mom, who sportingly agreed to be dragged half-way across to nowhere to satiate my curiosity about the erstwhile capital of the Cholas

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